Pursat Environmentalists Clash With Businessmen, Military, Villagers

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of three stories looking at new and unorthodox ways Cambodian and foreign conservation officials are fighting to save Cambodia’s wildlife.

veal veng district, Pursat pro­vince – When his district governor first offered Hem Salouth a job as a Pursat Provincial Department of Environ­ment forest ranger, he felt not gratitude, but fear.

“I didn’t know what ‘environment’ meant,” he said. “I thought it meant soldiering, so I was very afraid. Then the governor ex­plained the meaning of environment to me.”

For Hem Salouth, who said he was drafted into being a soldier for the Khmer Rouge for two terrifying years, the fear was very real. Today, Hem Salouth is not a soldier, but he has dangerous job. For a tiny government salary, he and his team of rangers trek into the jungle for days at a time carrying little more than a hammock, some rice and dried fish, and loaded AK-47s.

Their opponents are also armed, usually better paid and have friends in high places. Just last month, the team was involved in two tense standoffs with military police believed to be in cahoots with loggers. Also last month, a ranger with the NGO Conservation International in the same area was held at bay by villagers, wielding axes and mach­etes, who were angry at anti-logging enforcement attempts.

The logging moratorium not­withstanding, things appear to be heating up in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Refuge. It’s not the company that holds the concession that is logging here, but the military itself, with the spoils going over the Thai border, say officials with the province’s Department of Environment and Conservation International.

The plunder of the forest and its wildlife is being aided by a recently renovated road, Route 56, which has made the area more accessible to poachers and loggers as well as to villagers seeking trade.

“Two years ago when I came here, there was very little activity because it was hard to get here,” said Ben Hammond, an Austra­lian adviser to the Department of Environment. “Now there are good roads, big trucks and businesspeople.

“The time to start doing something is now. If we wait any longer, there won’t be anything here worth protecting.”

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Hammond is more adventurous than the average expatriate, most of whom spend much of their time speaking English in air-conditioned offices in Phnom Penh.

Two years ago, Hammond worked at a local environmental department in Australia, advising citizens on how to save water. Then, working through a volunteering agency, he took a job with Pursat’s environmental department, where he works for a tiny stipend, is the only person who speaks more than rudimentary English—and air-conditioning is but a dream.

Now he’s mapping out uncharted forested areas and trying to professionalize employees who themselves are working on tiny salaries. He periodically treks into the jungle with his staff. He has skilled guides, however. Hem Salouth is valued by the team for his experience trekking through the jungle for weeks at a time, collecting aloewood. Now, of course, it’s his job to stop it, because collecting aloewood requires chopping down a tree.

Hem Salouth spends most of his time on his farm. But his small salary—about $12.50 a month—makes it worth his while to patrol in the forest about twice a month, often in response to tips about illegal hunting or poaching.

“Some villagers were angry with the crackdown, but when we explain the bad effects to the environment, they understand,” he said.

For villagers living in villages terrorized by the Khmer Rouge only a few years ago and are still heavily mined, it can be frustrating to be told not to hunt large animals, fell trees for resale or harvest forest products—like yellow vine or aloewood—that re­quire felling trees.

The impatience boiled over last month, when 49 villagers in O’Som commune held a ranger with the NGO Conservation International and demanded the return of confiscated chainsaws. Angry that the rangers had taken the tools of their trade, they also demanded food, said Chut Wutthy, a deputy director at CI.

The ranger, Hong Horn, was quickly returned. The protest was led by outside businessmen, not the villagers themselves, Chut Wutthy said. But he acknowledged that some villagers are upset by the enforcement actions.

“We say we are not just planning enforcement, but development too,” he said.

More frightening are the army and military police believed to be assisting in logging or conducting it themselves. On July 18 a troop of four Department of Environ­ment rangers was walking along

 

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